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How to Counter Russia’s Anti-Democratic Strategy

At a summit last week in Latvia writes Nicolas Bouchet, the European Union and the countries of the Eastern Partnership reiterated that democracy is essential for a closer political and economic association. The joint declaration issued by the EU members and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine avoided any specific mention of Russia. But events since Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests in 2013-14 have made it clear that any democracy promotion efforts toward the region have to consider direct ideological competition from Russia.

Russia’s actions vis-à-vis Western democracy promotion over the past 15 years form a three-stage process of containment and rollback. The first relates to Russia itself, the second to the post-Soviet states, and the third and most recent to Central Europe and the Balkans. Moscow’s objective has been to protect its increasingly autocratic regime with layers of insulation from outside efforts that might make democratic political change in Russia possible. A fuller understanding of Russia’s role in creating regime competition would improve the ability of the EU and the United States to promote democracy in the region.

The debate over whether the West is embroiled in a new Cold War with Russia is simultaneously misleading and relevant as far as democracy promotion is concerned. It is misleading if we get bogged down in whether or not Russia has an ideology that it wants to spread, and a strategy and policy tools to export it, in the same way as the Soviet Union did. The debate is relevant, however, because countering Russia’s anti-democratic agenda requires a better understanding of why and how it has been successful in containing and rolling back Western democracy promotion efforts.

Three points need to be made in this regard. First, the anti-democratic and illiberal political developments in Russia since the 1990s have gradually amounted to a coherent set of norms. They are not far from forming an ideology, even if one has not been formalized or expressed as such.

Second, the argument that Russia’s actions are purely geopolitical — rather than ideological — is also flawed. Moscow’s domestic norms are closely linked to its policy toward the post-Soviet states and to President Vladimir Putin’s vision for Eurasia. Russia’s leadership supports and encourages these norms abroad because it sees this as essential to its survival at home, as well as for driving back general Western influence in the region and rebuilding a Russian geopolitical sphere.

Third, the sum total of Russia’s actions abroad — however reactive, improvised, or tactical each may be on its own — indicates an embryonic strategy to support and promote non-democratic norms. The growing number of channels and actors that Russia uses to influence political developments in its neighborhood, while not as institutionalized as those in the West, is beginning to resemble a toolkit for engaging in regime competition.

If EU and U.S. democracy promotion in Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans is to have any traction, existing efforts need to be adapted by taking into account the specifics of Russian counter-policies, for example in the field of civil society support. New ones also need to be developed in less traditional fields — for example, socio-cultural initiatives — in which Russia has been active. The United States and EU also need policies that are more specifically designed for democracy protection where progress has been made, including wider diplomatic, security, and economic support for reforming governments.

Finally, policymakers and civil society organizations on both sides of the Atlantic should look much more seriously at how they can collaborate better and overcome the obstacles that have so far prevented closer cooperation. Without this, and in the context of resource constraints and an adverse geopolitical climate for democracy promotion, it will be much harder to make progress against greater regime competition with Russia.

Nicolas Bouchet is TAPIR research fellow with the Europe Program at The German Marshall Fund (GMF) in Berlin, where he authored Russia and the Democracy Rollback in Europe. You can follow him at @nickbouchet. This article was first published by the GMF.

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